Just before the start of the 2016 regular season, the 49ers traded for journeyman wide receiver Jeremy Kerley. The former Lions and Jets receiver was needed to bolster an injury-riddled corps of pass catchers. At the time, he wasn’t seen as anything more than an extra wideout.
Almost seven months later, however, Kerley is part of the 49ers’ long-term plan, while the team’s No. 1 wide receiver going into 2016, Torrey Smith, is not.
It’s yet another sign that nothing is set in stone in the NFL where production and price tag against the salary cap are all important. The moves are likely just the start of the team’s attempt to rebuild one of its weakest position groups.
Smith, after two just two years of a five-year deal, was released by the 49ers Monday after the worst season of his career. Plagued by injuries and below-par quarterback play, Smith – once considered one of the league’s best deep threats – caught just 20 passes for 267 yards in 2016.
The 49ers’ move will take about $9.5 million off the team’s payroll in 2017, according to Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, giving the team close to $100 million in salary-cap space. Smith’s release helps general manager John Lynch go into the start of the free agency period Thursday with more flexibility to go after some veteran pass catchers. Among the wide receivers reported to be on the 49ers’ radar are Kenny Britt of the Los Angeles Rams, Terrelle Pryor of Cleveland, Alshon Jeffery of Chicago and Pierre Garcon of Washington.
For now Kerley, who just signed a three-year deal worth a reported $10.5 million, ranks as the team’s top wideout after the best year of his six-year NFL career. Kerley had 64 catches for 667 yards and three touchdowns.
Now the 49ers will add some key pieces around him – while also looking for a new quarterback – to put some life into a passing game that was the NFL’s worst.
New 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said at the NFL Combine this past week that the team will add pass catchers from free agency, the draft or trades.
“We’re going to add as many as we can to help our roster, and we also want to add some competition, because we feel the more competition we have in (offseason workouts), the more competition you have in training camp,” Shanahan told reporters. “If you end up cutting some people at the end of training camp who you think can play in the NFL, then that shows that your organization’s going in the right direction. That’s really our goal.”
Meanwhile, Smith, 28, apologized to 49ers fans on social media for his lack of production, but vowed that his release won’t be the end of his NFL career. He still believes he can be a playmaker, as he was with the Baltimore Ravens before coming to San Francisco.
Tweeted Smith: “Don’t be surprised when I’m back on track next year …”